Melissa Harris-Perry on the Power of Failure in Building Movements and Our Lives

Melissa Harris-Perry on the Power of Failure in Building Movements and Our Lives

“We don’t always notice leadership when it is quieter, when it empowers others, when it doesn’t place itself out front. Or even if it does all those things, but it does them in a woman’s body, we’re taught to see that as irritating and self-promoting, rather than as leadership. I think that part of it is that we have to acknowledge that girls and women are responding to very real social and social media and employment punishments that come from being less than perfect.”

About This Episode

If you’ve ever heard her speak, watched her on TV or read her writing, you know that Melissa Harris-Perry is going to teach you something you didn’t already know, while also sharing her truth. In her interview on the Social Change Diaries, she does just that- with a no holds barred sit down with Vanessa.

About Melissa Harris-Perry

Melissa Harris-Perry is the Maya Angelou Presidential Chair at Wake Forest University. There she is the founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Center and the faculty director of the Pro Humanitate Institute. She is also the co-host of Freedom on Tap.

Melissa hosted the television show “Melissa Harris-Perry” from 2012-2016 on weekend mornings on MSNBC.

She is the author of the award-winning Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, and Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.

Harris-Perry received her B.A. degree in English from Wake Forest University and her Ph.D. degree in political science from Duke University. She also studied theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Harris-Perry previously served on the faculty of the University of Chicago, Princeton University, and Tulane University.

In her words…

“I think that our greatest responsibility always to young people, whether those young people are our students or fellow citizens or children, is as much as possible to try to make the world a safe place for them to make mistakes in. In order for them to innovate, they have to be able to fail, and their failure can’t mean the end of themselves, or of their relationships or of their movement.”

“There were failures in the civil rights movement. There were failures in movement for women suffrage. You know, lots of failures in the attempt to abolish slavery. But then you keep working, right? So we should make the world safe for young people to fail in by not contributing to a discourse about them failing. We should, I think, continue to assist, especially people living at intersectional identities, with finding the analytical tools to talk about their own experiences.”

“We’re responding to a world that absolutely punishes women for failure more harshly and more publicly than it punishes men. Part of the reason that men and boys are more willing to ‘throw it at the board and see what sticks’ is in part because there’ll be women there to fix it!  in certain ways, I think we’ve had that kind of division of labor in everything from electoral politics to social movements, where I call it ‘men talking and women walking’.”

“For me, you’ve got to have peers who you respect. You have to have some internal rules for yourself about what counts as quality, and then you need some inspirational people. So, I didn’t care about the ratings of my show, but I cared about ratings from this handful of people in the world. And if they were with me and I was with me, then that was enough.”

“It’s part of why Squad Care matters. If we don’t choose women, if we don’t choose to believe black women when they speak and follow them when they lead, then we can hardly complain that others don’t.”

“Part of Squad Care is intimate relationships, friendships, work relationships, beloveds, family members. But there’s another level of Squad Care and that, for me, is the political. We have to make choices that say that we value not only ourselves and what’s good for us, but that we value the ability to care for each other. I think it’s been taken as this liberal paternalism, and it’s not about saying “I know what’s better for you so I’m giving you this,” because that’s not caring at all. It’s about making space for other people through structural equity so that everybody can stand in some sort of reasonably equal location. Without that, you just can’t expect that people, yourself or anyone else, can self-care their way through it.”

Questions Answered on this Episode

  • Thinking about reframing the idea of failure- how do we take that to the issue of poverty or racial justice? Do you feel like there’s any temperament or tolerance for failure in those very public environments?
  • As many cheerleaders and champions you’ve had, there were also some detractors. How did you manage that? How did you find yourself “right” when other people were finding you “wrong”?
  • Are there any talismans along your journey that you grabbed onto to help strengthen yourself as you moved on? 
  • For a listener who is not familiar, can you share what Squad Care is and how one creates a Squad?
  • When do you feel most vulnerable in your work?
  • What would you like to see in 2020 as it relates to women in public office, women in movements and in social change in general? If you were waving your Melissa Harry-Perry magic wand, what would you create?

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